Compared with the software teams on the first floor, the workshops in the old building come across as quite old-fashioned. But these modest premises conceal advanced engineering, in the form of a 3-D metal printer – the first and only such device in ZF. The printer uses lasers to “print” metal shapes by melting layer after layer of aluminum or steel powder to build up a three-dimensional workpiece in a process called direct metal laser sintering.
The advantages are obvious. “We’re faster and cheaper than if we had to ramp up a conventional production,” explains print coordinator Karel Löffelmann. And the prototype workpieces allow designers to be much more flexible. “It’s enormously helpful in advanced engineering,” says Mathias Eickhoff, himself a mechanical engineer. “And that’s a huge step forward compared with plastic prototypes. While they can reproduce the shape, they can’t be used in the same way as metal components.”